According to the last of Forbes’ “30 under 30” list and recent major awards, talents, creativity, and determination are not lacking in the western Balkans. More and more companies are investing and externalizing activities there. Some cities have become hubs for co-working adepts, working retreats and popular bases for digital nomads. All encouraging signs. Yet, the situation is still far from being ideal, especially for local entrepreneurs. Economies are struggling and corruption remains a widespread burden on citizens and institutions. People’s trust level in their governments and institutions as well as in the future is low and translates into high numbers of people emigrating to Western Europe and Northern America.
Sanja Korić has created Visit Bosnia to develop tourism around Konjic, Bosnia and Herzegovina, with an accent on a local economy, environment-friendly and rural tourism and social actions. Uranik Begu has a long experience of creating and supporting startups and new businesses, a knowledge he is now using in the Innovation Center Kosovo in Pristina. Lazar Mugoša has recently launched Healthy Living, the first ever vending machine offering healthy, fresh and ready-to-eat food in Podgorica, Montenegro, inspired by a trip to Italy.
Balkanoscope: How did you become an entrepreneur?
Sanja Korić: I studied economy and I have been working in tourism for eight years. Some family members who live in the Netherlands have opened a hotel here, on the shore of lake Boracko, and I have been helping. I noticed that the clients were very interested in local people’s life, they were asking questions, they wanted to help. So six months ago I opened my own tourism agency, Visit Bosnia, with the idea of putting the accent on rural tourism to help people from the numerous villages around Konjic to sell their products and host tourists. I also worked very hard to make a summer camp for disabled kids. It was very important for me, it is a cause close to my heart.
Uranik Begu: I grew up in Kosovo until high school. It was not an easy place to grow up in but I was one of the fortunate people who went to the US to finish high school and that is where I got my inspiration about being more open-minded about the economy and the future. I decided to come back right after the war. I thought there were a lot of opportunities despite the post-war situation. I was working in marketing, then the Norwegian government opened the Innovation Center Kosovo (ICK) and I became executive director. I had a trading company already and after arriving at ICK I created two other startups in tech. But my efforts now are on supporting other entrepreneurs. So far, we have supported 161 startups that created more than 700 jobs.
Lazar Mugoša: I was traveling in Italy and I saw a similar vending machine in a supermarket. I came back and I thought about it, I knew that nothing like this exists here. I came up with the idea of offering salads, fresh juices, something for lunch or snacks for people at work or at school. I talked with some people and my wife and they were all enthusiastic because it was a new idea on the market. As far as I could see there is not such a thing anywhere in the Balkans. I researched to know what I would need, how to find fundings, what kind of products… Then I went to the Fund for investment and development, an institution that takes credits from European banks to finance good projects here. When I got the money, I launched everything in February 2018.
Balkanoscope: According to the World Bank, doing business has never been so easy in the region and several countries are showing significant progress in some key areas. The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is among the highest ranking countries in the latest World Bank’s report. Bosnia and Herzegovina, on the other side, is far behind its neighbors. However, what is on paper can differ from first-hand experiences and a good ecosystem for entrepreneurship relies on many different factors. How is the atmosphere for entrepreneurship in your country? What are the difficulties?
SK: Bureaucracy is a problem. There is always a mistake somewhere, always a document missing, and every time they tell you to come again, and pay again. From the point of view of entrepreneurship, it’s a big obstacle. It’s really something shameful. Another difficulty is financing. I got help from the Swiss organization Helvetas, they gave me the money to start. According to my experience, finding international organizations is the only way to get started. There are very few opportunities at the level of the Federation or from the state.
UB: Kosovo has improved a lot in the last World Bank’s report for doing business. That’s good news. Despite that more could have been done on the ground in incentivizing new energies to join the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Now startups are being treated equally as any other business. We have a good ecosystem for startups, connectivity and a big pool of talent. The Internet is good and the living conditions are affordable for young people and startups. The legal framework is quite affordable as well, taxes are low compared with the rest of the region. On the other side, access to finance remains a problem: banks don’t take risks, the government does not have any funding, there are no business angels… The image of Kosovo can also be a problem for foreign companies, but this is changing because our companies are going global. Young people are eager to learn about new technologies and to connect. The isolation of our people is another challenge. Europe is being unfair to our youth: opening doors would make cooperation start sooner. One cannot innovate when stuck.
LM: There is the question of the size of the market, it is a drastic difference to work in Podgorica or in Belgrade for instance. Just the number of inhabitants can make a big difference in the end. That’s a problem that I see here as a young entrepreneur. When we are talking about the general situation it is much easier to have an online company than to do something physically in terms of costs. Another big problem is of needing contacts. In Montenegro, nothing works based on the principle of professionalism. I called so many times and sent so many emails, but nobody answered until I found someone to give me access. In the media, the government says it is supporting us and there are non-profit organizations. But again, to get access to anything, you need to have contacts. The Union of young entrepreneurs in Montenegro is the only light in this situation. Thanks to them I got contacts and access, for instance to ministries.
Balkanoscope: How do people see business and entrepreneurs here?
SK: Overall with approval. It comes with responsibility, it’s not too easy. Because of my agreement with Helvetas, for instance, I have obligations, goals to achieve.
UB: The perceptions are changing for good since many new modern and innovative entrepreneurs are becoming role models especially for youngsters. So the entrepreneurial path is becoming attractive.
LM: Today everybody wants to do business but nobody understands what it means. They don’t realize how much you have to work. People often tell me: “it’s all good for you, you have a good position in a company, a good salary, you have your own company and employees”, but very little of them think about how much I have to work for that. I get up at 5 am every morning to go and see if everything is alright with my own business. People don’t want to accept that if they put a lot of money into something, they still need to work even more.
Balkanoscope: A lot of people are trying to leave the country to find a better future somewhere else. This has been underlined as a major challenge for every Western Balkan countries for a while now, as many of those leaving are educated and young. What does this mean for local entrepreneurship, and what do you think of it?
SK: I understand them, up to a point. I keep saying we need to stay and work hard because hard work pays in the end. There is always something to try. It pains me to see young educated people, leaving the country. I always make sure people who work with me get paid correctly and on time. Only if they are satisfied, you can work and progress. I see how some big companies exploit workers and that’s wrong, that’s not how our society will get better.
UB: Kosovo is a good place to start a business. Sometimes we have this combination with the diaspora of people living abroad but making business here. It works very well because Kosovo itself cannot produce innovative ideas but we can use the diaspora, we need more and more cooperation. But you know, it is not so easy to leave Kosovo. Those who want to have very low salaries and of course they want better. With ICK we provide great opportunities for people to learn and make good living.
LM: Let’s say out of 30 friends, 15 have left. But they have worse jobs, only with much better salaries. I would say we have this complex of a small nation, that nobody wants to be seen doing some kinds of a job like waitressing for instance. But those who leave, they would clean the toilets if it is in another country because no one would recognize them. It is a big flaw in our youth and a big obstacle to success. But if people are leaving, others are coming in because foreign investors see our potential with the sea, the mountains… Those investors can keep people here, the ones who want to work.
Balkanoscope: How do you feel about the future?
SK: Of course I have faith in the future, I have to. Money has never been a motivation in my life but of course, I know one has to live out of something. That’s why my goal is to support the rural life of the region and give access to the tourism economy to other people. I also believe in regional cooperation. I have contacts in Serbia, in Montenegro…
UB: I am very optimistic. I am raising my two sons here and they were born in Sweden. I would not do that if I did not believe in a better future. Trends are in our favor: Europe is aging and the market for services is expanding. Europe will need young people and we are a young country. Few companies have raised more than a million euros already. Online work, 3D printing, new technologies using blockchain are emerging. There is a big growth in Android app and games development. Another good thing is that we have now a ministry of innovation and entrepreneurship and it has a ten million euros budget. This is a start. We will see how that money will be distributed and if it is here to make an impact or for something else. It will take time to see how the funds are used.
LM: Of course there is a future. It can never be easy, it would not be easy even if I was living let’s say in France. I am optimistic, that way it’s easier to live. We need young people to make a change also in politics because right now we have one ruling party with absolute power and this for thirty years. Politician who have been here for so long do not care for the state’s interests but for their own, to stay in their position.